The first time I saw mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez perform, I was new to Los Angeles and not long out of college. It was the late '70s at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway.
Almost three decades later, Fernandez, 65, is still going strong, like the Rolling Stones of ranchera music. And he's more popular today than ever in his 37-year career, judging from the adulation that greeted his 3 1/2 -hour show on Saturday, the second of a six-night stand at the Gibson Amphitheatre that ends Sunday.
Incredibly, his gifted voice remains as full and forceful as it was in his younger years. Only once during his marathon set of dozens of songs did it appear to strain and fail to hit its note, on a popular Juan Gabriel romantic number.
But the singer reasserted his prowess by dropping his microphone for the song's big finish, projecting au naturel all the way to the new Gibson skybox in the back.
With a folksy and hospitable manner, the mariachi icon makes his concert feel like a visit to Chente's Cantina, to use his nickname. He downs shots of XO cognac all night and smokes onstage as if he owns the place, tossing his empty glass away and snuffing out cigarette butts on the floor with his mariachi boot. And who's going to tell him not to?
At one point, he introduced his wife of 42 years and serenaded her in the front row with the song that "made her melt like a candle" during their courtship, "Amor de los Dos."
With affection and authority, he also called local star Lupillo Rivera up onstage and let him sing "El Rey" (The King), the Jose Alfredo Jimenez classic of dignity and defiance in the face of poverty. Looking genuinely flustered at first, Rivera held his own on the challenging tune, earning a pat on his shaved head from his "idol."
Chente's Cantina closed around midnight. See y'all next year.
Where: Gibson Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City
When: Friday to Sunday
Price: $61.50 to $158.50
Contact: (818) 622-4440